As most memorable days on the water, the events that transpired were far from what I had expected. This particular day found us fishing a lake that was large, by Nebraska Sandhill standards, but small as big water goes. We were throwing large streamers into deeper water, and then making a fast-paced retrieve back to shore. The wind was just a breeze, making this day enjoyable even if we didn't catch any fish. Several fish had been caught, and Bob and I were beginning to get them figured out when our attitudes about fly-fishing for northern pike changed forever.
Bob had just released a fish, and I was trying desperately to even the score. Most of the fish were following for a good stint, and then striking fiercely, ten feet from the rod tip. This fish was no different. When it hit I instantly knew it was a large fish, as it bent my rod like a cheap piece of lawn furniture. In true Mutt and Jeff style, my drag was too tight and with an ear splitting crack, my pride and joy, two-piece, six-weight quickly turned into a three-piece, six-weight, but I still had the fish on. I grabbed the line, and began a hand over hand retrieve trying to save the fish, not to mention some pride. I slowly made progress on the fish, until I could see the leader. I made several small pulls until my leader was just inside of the top couple of guides. Then fate struck; an untrimmed tag end of the nail knot caught on the tip top. As if the situation was not awkward enough, I reached out towards the tip to pull the line free, almost dislocating both shoulders in the process.
Now, if you were in a boat and saw a man waist deep in water, with a broken rod in his hand and a fish obviously creating a few problems, with fly line wrapped around the rod and reel, looped around his neck and stretched between both wrists, and the determined (or stupid) fly-fisherman reaching out for what looks like empty space, don't you think you might come and try to assist? None of my partners did. If laughs could have been five-dollar bills, needless to say, my working days would be over!
With no help on the way, while I was fully extended, reaching for the rod tip, the fish took an offensive left turn. I defensively move my leg to the side in an attempt to change his direction, and unexpectedly lowered the rod tip. The fish continued on his course, and wrapped the line around the rod tip. A final run, a loud "Snap" and it was all over.
The fish was free, departing with a $300 dollar rod tip attached to a 6-foot pike leader tied to an Enrico Piglusi baitfish fly. All that could be seen of the departing denizen was the rod tip skipping across the water in what looked like a low budget version of Jaws. Of course, at this time, I was completely awestruck, and didn't pay any attention to the fish closing in on Bob. As the fish reached within 30 feet, Bob decided to head for higher ground. Clambering for shallower water, splashing and yelling, he made it to safety just as the fish turned and headed for deeper water.
We stood in complete silence and reverence; nay, fish worship, as my rod tip slowly slid into deeper water and out of sight. Coming out of my fish induced coma, I realized I was still holding onto what was once my favorite rod.
Not all northern pike are as overwhelming as this demon possessed specimen seemed to be, but all are just as challenging and every bit as exciting. Pike are very visual feeders, and will often rely solely on this sense to feed. Once their prey is targeted, they will follow, waiting for the opportunity to lunge with gaped jaws. That is what makes pike one of the most exciting species to catch on a fly. They are not shy of the boat, or a fisherman wading in the water. They will continue to track their prey inches from a boat, a fisherman or lakeshore. I have had pike follow flies into less than six-inches of water before they made their attack. Pike are peculiar in their physiology, prior to the attack. They will hunch their back into an S-curve, similar to a spring, loading all the potential energy they can muster, and when the moment is just right, WHAM... nothing left but sinking scales and a few bubbles.
Pike can be found in many of the waters in the middle to upper latitudes of the United States, and most of Canada. Pike can reach 5-10 pounds with ease. A Northern pike over 10 pounds and 36 inches is considered a large fish. Fish in the 20 pound + range are not common, but they do come out of quality waters every year.
Other species in their genus share similar characteristics, but are not always as willing to eat a fly, as is the case with the muskie or muskellunge. The cross between the muskie and the northern pike, called the tiger muskie, is another voracious feeder and fighter. This fish is a hybrid, and is generally stocked in water where panfish need to be controlled. Tiger muskie are desirable for this purpose because of their limited breeding capabilities. The smaller of the genus, the pickerel, are very eager to eat a fly and can be found in large quantities throughout similar ranges.
To fly-fish for pike, a six-weight can do the trick irregardless of the above story. However, when the wind picks up and the flies are larger, a six-weight can be a challenge to make consecutive 60-foot casts without undue strain. I generally recommend an eight-weight or greater, depending on the experience level of the caster, the wind and the size of flies. A floating fly line is often ideal, especially in spring when pike are in the shallows, warming themselves, immediately after ice-out. Pike, in the summer, tend to hold a little deeper, looking for cooler water. During the heat of summer, a sinking line is in order. The reel is of some importance, but is not that critical, as pike in lakes do not usually make long runs. However, if you happen to be one of the lucky few that has an opportunity to fish for pike in flowing waters, a reel with a good drag and 75 yards of backing will be needed. Pike are not leader shy fish, so long delicate leaders are not needed. A standard pike set up has at least four feet of monofilament
with approximately 12 inches of wire (preferably one of the knotable wires) to tie directly to the fly.
Fly selection can either be extremely easy or extremely difficult, depending upon the time of year, mood of the fish and the natural forage. Day in and day out, I have found that chartreuse, blue, fluorescent orange and white are very productive colors. Patterns such as Clouser Minnows, Deceivers, and Enrico's all seem to work well for sub-surface action.
However, the retrieve is more important that the actual fly. Most fish species prefer an erratic retrieve, which is not usually true for pike. Pike, following a fly, will usually become disinterested if the fly stops moving. When blind casting, I allow the fly to drop for several seconds, and then begin the retrieve with short pauses at the beginning of the retrieve. I then will pull the fly progressively faster through the water, as the fly gets closer to the rod tip. Always make sure you can see the fly before pulling it out of the water. Pike will follow the fly right to the rod tip. If this happens, make a quick movement with the fly, like it is trying to escape. Fisherman using conventional tackle will move the lure in a figure eight when they can see the pike is still in pursuit at rod tip. It is difficult to do this with a fly rod; therefore, I opt for a long sweeping motion to the side, using the length of the fly rod to my advantage.
As I walked back to the truck and my waiting spare rod (always bring an extra rod - chances are you will need it), I thought about pike and realized that no matter how often you tackle them, even with the right gear, sometimes the angler ends up with the short end of the stick. For those of us addicted to these toothy critters, this is the main reason we go. It's a lot like hunting dangerous game; the thrill of having the tables turned makes them so sporting.
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